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Ok. We're talking about when you'll be on the bike for 5+ hours. For example, a Century or 200K.

What is the best nutrition for a ride of this type?

So, I'll be on the bike for 5+ hours, with few or no stops. (pee stops and water refill and otherwise nothing else)

Should I go with the food provided along the way (a supported century), or junk food, or should I prepare my own deal?

FWIW - 30mi/50k ride does not count. That's a training ride in 2 hours or less.

Update... Here's what it came down to. We used Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem. Basically, Perpetuem is a bunch of maltodextrin + some protein + some fats. We made up 8 hour water bottles which was basically like slurping down pancake batter. The Century ride had 7 stops along the way. Not counting water refill and pee stops; we only made a real stop for lunch at the 6th stop. The 8th stop was the end, but we continued on for another 30 miles to meet up with our ride back home.

I must add that the Perpetuem mixture started out well, but was extremely revolting by the end of the ride. However, it did the job. Since the May supported century, I've done several 80 - 100+ mile rides. Perpetuem works well as fuel, but I did add some tastier, solid foods to my jersey pocket for a change of pace.

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    Possible duplicate: How much to eat and drink during a multi-hour ride? – Neil Fein May 25 '11 at 20:58
  • I especially want to hear from you folks who do this. – user313 May 25 '11 at 21:51
  • @NeilFein: I don't think it's a duplicate, because that other question specified a much shorter ride which has very different needs. – freiheit May 25 '11 at 22:00
  • Basically all you need is water, sugar and/or simple starch, and salt (including perhaps a touch of potassium and magnesium). No real point in protein or fat, other than to make the rest more palatable. – Daniel R Hicks Sep 20 '11 at 22:06
  • @DanielRHicks - Is Hammer Nutrition wrong? And, are you a well educated nutritionist? – user313 Sep 20 '11 at 23:02
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Informally, I find that on long rides, your body will simply know what it needs. You pull off at a stop; the trail mix and pickles look delicious, so you eat them.

More scientifically though, your body can process about two servings (e.g., bottles of gatorade, gel packs, etc.) of carbohydrate per hour. Any more than this, and you can experience gastrointestinal distress (politely put) as the excess carbohydrates back up in your gut. For this reason, I prefer to drink water on long rides, and use food or gel packs to replenish salt and sugar. This way I can decouple hydration from my carbohydrate intake — if I'm parched, I'm not stuck with the choice of getting dehydrated versus consuming too many carbs.

But first and foremost, listen to what your body tells you it wants. Drink plenty of water and try to spread out your consumption of food and drink evenly. Lots of small snacks will be easier on your digestive system and keep your energy level even, as opposed to a few large binges.

  • This! Plus I go for a salt energy drink rather than one that's just sugar. Also, experiment if your body is unhappy with what you're eating/drinking. Dried bananas are popular with Audax/randonneur riders (lower intensity but longer rides), I like rice/(soy)milk/sugar/sultanas as food but watching me eat it made one friend vomit (you do not want to know what he was eating) – Мסž May 25 '11 at 22:34
  • Nicely written. This explains why I can never crave a big lunch while touring. – Neil Fein May 26 '11 at 2:16
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Personally for me, the key ingredient (after raw calories) is salt.

I find on my Ironman distance races that I go hyponatremic pretty early. I just get salt packets from a restaurant and eat a packet (5 grams) every hour or so.

When I realize I am low on salt (usually feel like I am falling asleep while biking hard or running) I eat some salt, and as soon as it touches my tongue I start to feel better.

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    Salt. Electrolytes. Next. – user313 May 25 '11 at 21:08
  • Meant to click elsewhere instead of upvoting the comment, sorry. – Neil Fein May 26 '11 at 2:17
  • Why the downvotes? This is interesting and properly written. – jv42 May 26 '11 at 11:12
  • @jv42 Same thing I was wondering. It is not meant to be complete but to include an important detail. Salt (even simple table salt) is a big deal on long distance events, if you sweat a lot. – geoffc May 26 '11 at 17:23
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OK: Muscles (and the rest of the body) need energy. That energy can come from several sources -- both stored and swallowed.

The blood and other body fluids contain enough blood sugar (glucose) to power the muscles for something like 15-30 minutes -- a relatively short time. After that blood sugar will begin to drop and the muscles must draw on other sources.

Glycogen is the next line of defense. The body stores glycogen (effectively a form of starch) in the muscles and the liver. When the muscles can't get enough sugar from the blood they will draw down their glycogen stores. In addition, the liver will convert glycogen to sugar and release it into the blood stream. I'm a little fuzzier on how long the glycogen stores are good for, but probably a couple of hours (though the more one trains on long rides, the more the muscles will build up their glycogen stores).

Next the muscles will begin to draw on fat and protein. The liver can convert these to sugar at a low level, but not fast enough to supply working muscles, so the muscles must burn them more or less directly. Burning fat and protein produces more metabolic byproducts than burning sugar or glycogen, and, in particular, burning protein (and to a lesser degree fat) produces a lot of ketones. Oddly, the heart burns ketones -- it's the only thing the heart can metabolize -- but exercising at a high rate with low sugar/glycogen produces a lot more ketones than the heart can burn, and more than the liver and kidneys can eliminate. The result is a state of ketosis, where the ketones become toxic and upset the body's entire balance, resulting in a major "bonk". (The feeling of this resembles dehydration or low salt, but, unlike with those, you don't "bounce back" when hydration and salt balance are restored -- it takes hours or days for the body to detox itself.)

So basically you want to keep the body supplied with sugar (which can be ingested as sugar or starch that is converted to sugar by enzymes in the gut) and also maintain the body's electrolyte balance and overall hydration. Any way you do these is good, and probably the most critical issue is what works for you in terms of palatability and digestive comfort/function, while achieving these basic goals. You want stuff that will be pleasant to ingest while achieving roughly the correct balance of the basic nutrients (including water). Often your tastes will change over the hours, and, in particular, strongly flavored foods, which may taste good initially, will tend to be less palatable as the day wears on. Also, it's necessary to be wary of ingesting too much salt/electrolyte or even simple sugar at one time, as these draw water into the gut rather rapidly, and can really upset digestion when you're somewhat dehydrated.

Note that you basically don't need protein or fat, at least not in any large quantities. A modest amount (eg, such as may be ingested in a snack containing peanuts) is fine, but there's no point in making an effort to include these, so long as you're getting some solid foods that contain modest amounts of them.

Added: I should mention that I have experimented with eating things like sausage sticks and jerky sticks on long rides, for the variety, and I don't recommend it. What I found is that this sort of thing is too "heavy", and the combo of salt and fat doesn't sit well on your stomach when you're mildly dehydrated and don't have time to stop and digest. Potato chips are a better choice, if you want something with "mouth feel", and they provide needed potassium.

  • Whats an approximate intake of sugar per lb. of body weight per hour (or half hour)? – user9135 Mar 10 '14 at 14:02
  • @SoilSciGuy - You can figure that the body is about 20% efficient. So roughly calculate how many watts of power you're generating (100-200w steady for a cyclist in good condition), convert to kcal/hour (1 watt = 0.86 kcal/hour), and multiply times 5 to figure calories per hour. – Daniel R Hicks Mar 10 '14 at 15:26
  • I've found that to be not true in colder weather, especially as rides get longer. Fueling with fat (and protein to a smaller extent) I have always associated with the ability to stay warm past eight hours or so. – Deleted User Dec 5 '16 at 16:01
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I agree with both answers thus far, but fact is to meet your nutritional needs for any ride close to this distance you need to start preparing three days out! Experience is the best teacher and it is always better to have too much food/drink than not enough.

I am huge fan of PB&J's on pumpernickel bagels!

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I think it is important to keep in mind that the whole reason behind having a plan for nutrition on long rides is mainly to avoid bonking.

You have to regularly consume carbs during long aerobic efforts. The reason for this is NOT because these carbs supply all the energy for the effort. They do not. These carbs make it possible for your body to consume fat as its energy source. Think of them as a "primer" that keeps the fat-burning going during an extended exertion.

The exact amount, nature and timing of the carbs consumption seems to vary quite a lot (lots of different opinions). However, according to this, 40-60 g per hour seems to be the range that researchers have studied (that's about one "power bar").

The tricky part is that you have to experiment for yourself with finding the right nutrition for long rides. You don't know how much you need or what your limits are until you try it. The body needs a history of experiences to get acclimated to new challenges. Not enough water/food/sleep, too many hills, too much "racing", too hot--- any of these can cause a bonk on a long ride especially when one is attempting a personal best for either distance or speed.

Bonking is not necessarily a ride-ending event. It just means that whoever it happens to will need to chill out for a while and eat something. Hopefully everyone on the ride will be cool with that if it happens. If the distance or speed is going to be very challenging for some folks, it is best to not be on a tight schedule.

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Nutrition seems to be a huge issue for folks on longer rides, which I sometimes don't understand. Your training rides leading up to such a thing should mostly prepare you for most of the realities of what you are going to face. My personal experience has been that variety is mostly likely the thing most often missed (due to training rides rarely stretching as long as whatever event they are leading toward).

You should be experimenting with your intake on your training rides and planning from there. There tends to be quite a bit of variety between what works for folks. I know distance riders who have lived and swore by products like Perpetuem. I also know very successful riders who live off odd combinations of complete crap (skittles and assorted candy) and ensure type supplements. You need to find what will work for you.

The last missing ingredient for event day tends to be variety. I don't know any endurance riders who enjoy eating the same thing for 10+ (or longer) hours. I know a few who won't eat some certain item because it was all they brought to a specific event and it forever ruined it. Understand that bringing a variety and more than you need will keep your feed system flexible and give it a higher chance of success.

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It depends on the intensity levels per segment (not just average). The fuel you are using at any point is a mix of glycocen and stored fat. The one that runs out is glycocen, so that is your primary concern (actually water is no.1). The harder you go, the more glycocen you consume per hour. You possibly have almost 1.500 calories worth of glycocen (if you ate well 1-2 hours before the ride), and that can fuel you for anything between 3 to 10 hours, depending on the fuel mix your body uses at each intensity.

Consumption of glycocen (the fuel that runs out faster) is typically much higher during long climbs and undulating terrain, so aim to fuel ~20 minutes before you reach such a segment, and get about 100 calories (half a candy bar, an isotonic gel, etc.) every 20-30 minutes. On easier segments eat stuff you like more (i.e. savoury). It is better that you study the segments where you may push more and eat accordingly. Averages are good rules of thumb (i.e 100 cals per half hour), and I use them, but some parts need more intake.

Your system can probably absorb about 250-300 calories of food intake anyway, and it makes sense for those to be 85-90% carbohydrates. For rides avoid fiber, fats, and protein, as they all compete for absorption and you don't really need an intake of those for 200-300K

If you are not racing you do not necessarily need "racing" nutrition (bars, gels, carbohydrate mixes, etc.), but it helps carrying a few "quick sugars" such as gels etc. for when you are putting in greater effort (as described above)

Disclosure: I've completed ~30 brevets (200, 300, 400, 600K), read and compare a lot, have toyed around with various nutrition schemes, and have yet to settle on one that fits every event and season. I have no relevant professional qualification and I know many successful randonneurs who fuel in totally different ways

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    Welcome to SE Bicycles - thank you for your answer. Could you clarify what " ~20' " means? Some of our users do not speak English as their primary language, and abbreviations or shorthand confuse easily. 20 feet or 20 inches makes no sense. – Criggie Dec 4 '16 at 19:31
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    @Criggie Minutes, I think: same notation as giving latitude/longitude in degrees, minutes and seconds of arc. But using an apostrophe to denote minutes of time is very rare in English, so it would be better to replace it with the word "minutes", if that's what it's supposed to mean. (And it would be feet if it were distance; inches would be a double-quote.) – David Richerby Dec 5 '16 at 0:53
  • @DavidRicherby Anyone can edit the answer, but its less work in the future if we can help the new users answer questions better to in the first place. Its a good answer too. – Criggie Dec 5 '16 at 7:33
  • replaced with minutes. Thanks for pointing it out – trianta Dec 5 '16 at 8:01
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Nutrition is nutrition. I do not see why everything we learn at school about eating a balanced diet with variety (to cover all of the main food groups in one of those pyramid shaped diagrams) goes out of the window as soon as 'sport' gets involved.

If you were to do 12 hour shifts in a factory every day lifting heavy boxes, would you contemplate doing it on over-priced electrolyte-balanced-whatever packets of 'food' that tastes horrible? Or would you pack some fresh sandwiches, maybe with a couple of fillings, maybe a sticky bun, a banana, a chocolate bar and perhaps a packet of crisps? Come the end of the 12 hour shift (with two 15 minute breaks and one half hour lunch) I think you would feel better if you had eaten properly that day and still be able to perform.

Why is it any different on a one-off bike ride? Admittedly I have never quite mastered the art of eating crisps on a bike, however, I think it is important to enjoy your food and stay from those extra-long-shelf-life 'sports' foods that don't even look like food. I don't even think you need to take in a lot en-route - the most important meals are brekkie and din-dins. And it is definitely okay to sleep after a large dinner as all other mammals do.

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    the difference is that people doing longer competitive rides rarely stop for an hour for lunch. If you're eating on the go your digestive system doesn't have much capacity since most of the blood is going to your muscles, so you want small snacks often. Eating big servings will give you that "lump in the stomach" feeling because your stomach isn't able to deal with it. – Мסž May 26 '11 at 21:34
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    ...exactly? Where did I say big hour-long sit-down lunch? '...eating crisps on a bike...' implies no-stopping. I am describing what Lance et al have: "For a ride of four to six hours, cyclists competing in the Tour need 7,000 calories a day. Lunch is prepared by the team trainer, and typically consists of small sandwiches containing honey and chopped bananas, or smoked turkey with cream cheese, plus energy bars and fruit, such as peeled apples." and without any junk food in sight. – ʍǝɥʇɐɯ May 27 '11 at 1:00
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    you start with the "eat a balanced diet" comment, and follow that theme. I think my response is reasonable. During a single-day exercise event you shouldn't aim for a balanced diet, you should aim to finish the event. That usually means eating primarily carbs and low-residue, low-GI foods. – Мסž May 27 '11 at 1:07
  • I agree that carbohydrates are the food you need (I am vegetarian so I do get that), but why do TdF riders go for balanced? A meal, whether in one sitting or eaten s-l-o-w-l-y en-route still has to be more than pure carbohydrates. Anyway, for a one-day, competetive ride the trick is to eat properly the day before and not go full-on riding for 1-2 days beforehand. – ʍǝɥʇɐɯ May 27 '11 at 6:57
  • Remember that the TdF lasts 21 days. You can't eat improperly for 21 days. For a single day event it's ok to eat like a pig, but things change when you go on a long tour. You have to eat proper means when on a multi-day tour. – Kibbee Sep 19 '11 at 20:53
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I have found that a 20oz caffeinated drink about 1/2 way in really helps me out on 60+ mile rides. Also, at least 200 calories per hour usually keep me from bonking. Starting at least a day or two ahead with the nutrition and hydration is important, as GuyZee pointed out.

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